Understanding fashion

Why fashion? Why spend all that money on silk and sequins? Could it have to do with sexual selection?

With fashion in the game, a woman not only sends out face and figure cues–which are fairly easy to fake–but she also signals her knowledge of the rules of fashion and her strategies for coping with them–which requires a set of inputs that are much harder to fake. With fashion layered into the mix, men can now tell something about a woman’s alertness to social conventions and the world around her, about her problem-solving skills and about the financial resources she brings to the game. (If those financial resources are earned by the woman herself, that directly signals a certain degree of fitness; if the financial resources are provided by the woman’s family, well, that at least strongly implies that some fairly fit genes in her family tree, as well as potentially valuable social connections.)

…to fulfill its role in sexual selection as a sincerity-testing handicap, fashion cannot be about simply making women beautiful, despite the fact that designers always portray their craft in this light. Fashion (as opposed to the rag trade) is about creating a rapidly changing set of rules for dressing which are intentionally subtle, complex, and difficult-to-decode. To make fashion work even better as a sincere (i.e., hard to fake) signaling device, designers must create a hierarchy of rules from introductory to expert while also charging increasingly more for the garments necessary to play the game at advanced levels. Making women beautiful (providing positive face and figure cues) is actually a task that fashion deliberately makes more difficult and expensive.

The discussion can be found on www.2blowhards.com, one of my favorite blogs.

The standard economic story suggests that we should tax costly signaling. Note that an evolutionary perspective can overturn or modify this conclusion. If we have evolved to enjoy such signalling (this is surely one plausible mechanism for how we are led to do the signaling, and surely many people love fashion), the signaling suddenly looks more productive. Signaling has sorting benefits as well; fashion makes sure that the right people marry each other. We likely still have too much signaling, relative to a “first best optimum,” but practicable improvements are suddenly harder to find.

Blogs and the private production of public goods

Blogs are a remarkable example of the private supply of public goods. The writers are highly motivated, and often highly intelligent. They produce opinion and commentary on just about everything, with remarkable speed and timeliness. Yet few of these authors are paid directly. They write either for love, or in the hope of converting their fame into profit. Well over four million blogs have been created.

Yet as we might expect, not all bloggers contribute much to the public good. To put it bluntly, many of you out there are slackers. Here are some results from a recent study:

Some highlights: about a quarter of all blogs created are abandoned after only one day. Men tend to abandon their blogs slightly faster than women do, while women are slightly more likely to create a blog in the first place. More than 90% of all blogs were created by people under 30 years old. The average active blog is updated only once every 14 days.

The summary remarks are from www.2blowhards.com.

Chilean vouchers

Co-blogger Alex and I had been having a debate over school vouchers, here is Alex’s last word, with links to the debate and my earlier posts, click here and here. I am skeptical about vouchers, although not from an anti-market point of view. We have seen from the electricity and water sectors that mixed public-private systems often create bad incentives, and do not always improve performance.

Brad Delong now cites NBER research (the paper itself costs $5) that school vouchers have not improved educational performance in Chile.

Here is a quotation from the paper:

In 1981, Chile introduced nationwide school choice by providing vouchers to any student wishing to attend private school. As a result, more than 1,000 private schools entered the market, and the private enrollment rate increased by 20 percentage points, with greater impacts in larger, more urban, and wealthier communities. We use this differential impact to measure the effects of unrestricted choice on educational outcomes. Using panel data for about 150 municipalities, we find no evidence that choice improved average educational outcomes as measured by test scores, repetition rates, and years of schooling. However, we find evidence that the voucher program led to increased sorting, as the best public school students left for the private sector.

My take: I am still willing to experiment with vouchers, mainly because they would give many inner city kids a chance they don’t currently have. But sometimes I wonder how much schooling, in the formal sense, matters at all. The United States has mediocre schooling, by international standards, but still produces highly productive individuals. Maybe a school is really just a collection of kids, in which case you can only get so far by reshuffling the mix.

Addendum: Here is a version of the paper.

The power of suggestion

Placebos have been shown to be quite effective in treating skin warts, which are clearly not a subjective ailment and are caused by viruses. According to an Australian physician, F.E. Anderson, warts probably have the highest number of folk remedies of any disease, which is not surprising if they respond well to placebos.

From the excellent Eight Preposterous Propositions, by Robert Ehrlich.

Francis Bacon recommended treating warts with pig fat. Sometimes warts respond well to hypnotic suggestion, an effect which is not well understood. And this is from an author strongly opposed to pseudo-science.

The fate of co-blogger Alex

You haven’t heard from Alex for a few days, he is out at Lake Tahoe addressing, get this, a conference of bounty hunters. In fact he is the keynote speaker, having done some excellent work on the topic. I mean work as a researcher, not work as a bounty hunter. I hope he will tell us more about this when he returns. And if he doesn’t come back, we will have some inkling of the reason.

The new Nobel Prize

Read David Warsh on the new Nobel Prize selections. There has been a paucity of interesting press on these picks, in part because the contributions are so technical. But this commentary, like everything else by David, is worth reading.

Here is one good point:

It was the third time in four years that the award was given for contributions to the tool-kit of empirical economists…The committee seems to be buttressing the case for the Nobel award itself…coming so quickly on the heels of the earlier award, this year’s prize may be directed less at the lay public, which is always hoping to understand what is going on in economics, than at the award’s real constituency – the scientists of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, mainly physical scientists, who actually vote the award.

At the end of the link you will find a separate bit, comparing Arnie to Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Here is a result I do not believe

Consider this hypothesis: In the past, such as the nineteenth century, resources were far less mobile. So corrupt officials had to keep their ill-gotten gains at home. This (supposedly) helped the growth prospects of those economies:

In the relatively closed economies of the 19th century, the gains from corruption remained inside the country and became part of the economy’s productive capital. In contrast, in today’s open economies, corrupt agents smuggle stolen money abroad depleting their country’s stock of capital.

Here is a link to the paper. Here is a recent and slightly misleading summary from The New Scientist.

My take: This can’t be right. Most corrupt agents hold and want money, they do not keep capital goods under their pillow. Let’s say that those agents simply burned the money. This would not destroy any real capital for the economy; co-blogger Alex and I used to call this the “Junker fallacy” (recall the mistaken old view that early Germany did not grow because the Junkers bought land instead of investing in capital). So sending money abroad should not be the fundamental problem. Furthermore the distorting effects of corruption are more important than any so-called loss of capital.

The authors do have an interesting empirical result, namely that corruption damages wealth more when the economy is open. But even if this relationship is causal, we have to look for another mechanism. My best intuitive shot is the following: if the economy is open, international investors will, sooner or later, punish it for the corruption, a’ la Indonesia or Argentina.

Is it cheap corn that makes Americans fat?

Read here. Here is a short bit on the scientific developments behind cheap corn. I wouldn’t want to take any of these developments back, as they have saved millions of lives around the world. Nonetheless the biological/behavioral arguments for market failure are growing in importance (human beings did not evolve to handle fully abundant fats and sugars), relative to the traditional externalities arguments. If you don’t believe me, check back in thirty years.

Movies and capitalism

I continue to be amazed at the high-quality specialized blogs out there. The latest: a new blog about how capitalism is portrayed in the movies, courtesy of Larry Ribstein, legal scholar.

From the blog, here is a list of movies that portray business and private enterprise in a favorable or semi-favorable fashion:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Executive Suite
Charley Varrick (1973)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Cast Away (2000)

Thanks to ProfessorBainbridge.com for the pointer.

Addendum: David Hecht points out that “Sabrina” and “Working Girl” are missing from this list. And I haven’t seen “You’ve Got Mail,” but I recall that the previews villainized book superstores.

Second addendum: Here is a very useful discussion of “You’ve Got Mail,” from ProfessorBainbridge.com.

Are focus groups any good?

“Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” Zaltman said in an interview. “In the space of 5 or 10 minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”

Evidence suggests focus group participants often lie. “The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative,” writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. After all, he notes, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots–virtually all of which are screened by focus groups–routinely fail in the marketplace.

My take: Some people lie outright, but mostly we don’t know what we really want, when confronted with a choice outside of context. Have you ever had the feeling that you cannot specify your reservation price in advance, but must first hear the relevant offer? I feel this way all the time, despite being perceived by my friends as a relatively definite and thoughtful personality type.

Click here for the full story.

Why Botswana?

From 1965 to 1995, Botswana was the fastest growing country in the world. During this 30 year stretch, Botswana’s average rate of growth was 7.7% per year. Relative to other nations, Botswana rose from the third poorest nation in 1965 to an “Upper Middle Income” nation.

Of course the rest of Africa has not nearly done so well. The account of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, later published in Dana Rodrik’s In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth, suggests the following (summary taken from Beaulier):

1. Botswana possessed relatively inclusive pre-colonial institutions, placing constraints on political elites.

2. The effect of British colonialism on Botswana was minimal, and did not destroy inclusive pre-colonial institutions.

3. Following independence, maintaining and strengthening the institution of private property was in the economic interests of the elite.

4. Botswana is rich in diamonds. This resource wealth created enough rents that no group wanted to challenge the status quo at the expense of “rocking the boat.”

5. Botswana’s success was reinforced by a number of critical decisions made by
the post-independence leaders, particularly Presidents Khama and Masire.

Scott Beaulier, a graduate student at GMU, attempts to amend this view. He argues that British colonial policy was not so beneficient toward market institutions and rule of law. Most of all, “Botswana’s success was the result of good post-colonial policy choices.”

In other words, countries are not trapped by their past. I don’t know enough history to judge this research, but I do know that topics such as Botswana, or Mauritius (another success story), are underexplored by economists.

Addendum: Abiola Lapite refers me to his interesting blog post, he suggests that the relative ethnic homogeneity of Botswana is a critical factor.

Will Web TV destroy global culture?

Eli Noam is the pessimist, Richard Epstein is the optimist. I agree with Epstein, who notes:

…the use of internet technology also reduces the costs of various forms of global co-operation. The best path for content-savvy foreign producers is to enter into deals whereby they combine their content with the technical expertise that is more cheaply available from the high-tech American platforms. The distribution channels cannot tell American from Hungarian electrons, and if content from other nations has sufficient appeal, then no evident cost disadvantage should keep it from reaching the marketplace, so long as technical services can be freely bought and sold.

Noam is worried that the Internet might make it easier for American content to take over markets, thus limiting the scope for local programming. But American television programs are losing ground internationally. Increasingly American TV shows and movies are part of a broader menu of satellite programming, offering viewers a truly global choice. A 2001 Nielsen survey found that 71 percent of the top 10 programs in 60 countries were locally produced.

Here is the full exchange, my only complaint is that we don’t hear enough from Richard.

Two things I learned about sleep

Old ideas that REM sleep deprivation led to insanity have been convincingly disproved…

Now I hope this second part was not funded by government money:

…although studies show that depriving someone of sleep, for example by prodding him or her awake repeatedly, can definitely cause irritability…

What else did I learn?

Body size appears to be a major determinant in the amount of sleep that a species needs. In general, the larger the animal, the less sleep it requires. Data suggest that one of the functions of sleep is to repair damage to brain cells. The higher metabolic rates of small animals lead to increased cellular injury and may, consequently, require more time for repair.

Opossums sleep eighteen hours a day, elephants three.

From the November issue of Scientific American, the article, “Why We Sleep,” is not yet on-line.

How do religious people vote?

Myth 1: Evangelicals all vote Republican. People often confuse the words “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Fundamentalists are very conservative and almost entirely Republican because they view the deterioration of traditional morality as the primary public policy crisis. But fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals, which is a more diverse group.

John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and the foremost scholar of evangelical voting behavior, spliced and diced data some time ago and managed to delineate a group of moderate evangelicals. I like to call them “freestyle evangelicals” because they are socially more liberal (they don’t vote strictly for pro-life candidates, for example) and politically “in play.” There are about 8 million to 10 million of them. This group went for Bill Clinton 55 percent to 45 percent over Bush Sr. in 1996 and 55 percent to 45 percent for W. over Gore in 2000. That’s a swing of about a million votes.

To read about six other myths, see today’s Slate.com.